Rob Hiaasen's final journey: A story of family love and remembrance

I must be blunt.

Rob Hiaasen loved mentoring young reporters. He loved writing. He loved finding stories about our common humanity. But I mean no harm to his professional image when I say the man adored vacationing.

I learned this about Rob during our first year of marriage, when he revealed a holy trinity of wisdom. I believe he was trying to sell me on an impromptu drive from our short-lived home of Atlanta to Key Largo, Florida, back in January 1986.

His sales pitch was simple. To have a hope of happiness, everybody needs three things:

Some place to work.

Somebody to love.

Something to look forward to.

On these, he was consistent, especially item three.

Case in point: Back in February, Rob hatched a plan for a 10-day trip out West for us, one that included stops at a pair of Utah’s national parks, Sonoma, California, and his beloved City Lights Books in San Francisco.

Having conquered a vicious case of plantar fasciitis more than a year ago, he longed for hiking, winery tours and a stroll down Timothy Lane in Menlo Park, California, home to our family of five during Rob’s 2003-2004 John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.

Was he giddy at the prospect or it all? All I know is he gazed at Lonely Planet and Fodor’s guides every weekend.

We were supposed to take this trip in late July. And, call us greedy, but we looked forward to one more dose of vacay in August. We’d snag two nights at the Holiday Inn Express in Bethany Beach, Delaware — an indulgence, yes, but one that was supposed to gird me, a high school English teacher with Baltimore County Public Schools, for the wallop of the 2018-2019 school year.

Rob booked the flights and rental car for the western excursion. I booked the hotel rooms for both trips. Anticipation of these journeys should have sufficed to power us through the last testy weeks of winter.

Then came Maryland’s nor’easter of 2018. The 7 inches of snow March 21 spawned an impressive case of spring fever for Fort Lauderdale native Rob, who — in between editing Capital Gazette stories from home — donned full snorkel gear and shoved his face into the fluffy snow accumulating in our Timonium backyard. Thank goodness he insisted that I video his stunt.

On tough days, I play that 21 seconds again and again, laughing at Rob in his finned feet, paddling past the bird feeder, settling on a clear spot, dropping to his knees and planting his snorkel mask into the pristine powder. I pretend for just a moment that he’s still alive and capable of channeling his inner child.

But I digress.

Rob concluded that snow snorkeling column by noting that his silliness was a clear sign that the time had come to stop writing — or take a vacation. And, let’s be clear, he meant the latter.

I hope this helps explain why the following weekend he sold me on yet another trip — an Easter 2019 getaway to the Conch Republic. He even paid a deposit to Key West’s Historic Hideaways Vacation Rentals. That’s another entry on my list of loose ends.

These days, my kitchen table is actually a mound of loose ends manifested as lists scribbled on disparate slips of paper:

“Call about required documents for Rob’s retirement plan.”

“Check workers’ compensation claim.”

“Find grief counselor’s phone number.”

Of course, these are nothing compared to the nightmare of June 28. In the 24 hours that followed, I, of course, determined I’d cancel our vacation plans. I was too busy agonizing over the horror endured by Rob and the other victims at the Capital Gazette.

I was also preoccupied with talking to TV and print reporters about the gem of a man this senseless tragedy cost us (because journalism really does matter — especially now). And I was determined to find some privacy in a house jammed with relatives so I could deliberate with my 20-something-year-old children over the best decisions regarding their father’s cremation and “celebration of life,” an ironically joyous event and salve for our family’s emotional wound.

Overall, Ben, Sam, Hannah and I managed. I’m proud that we each maintained our composure as we took to the dais at the Irvine Nature Center near Owings Mills on July 1 even as we attempted to sincerely convey the essence of Rob.

He would have said we rose to the occasion even though in private, we cried, lashed out, cursed, broke down and screamed.

On the day before Rob’s celebration, as my sobbing daughter Sam tried to regain her emotional equilibrium following a frank talk about the shooting with an Anne Arundel County police team in our home, we reached an epiphany.

“Dad really wanted to take that trip out West. Would it help you?” I said.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes!”

“We’re going.”

It wasn’t quite that easy. Overcoming the heebie-jeebies of traveling with human remains proved most daunting.

I forced myself to stop cringing and find the TSA protocol online. I read it at least three times but still couldn’t stomach the idea that I was literally packing my husband for what was designed as strictly recreational travel.

I finally spoke to a sister-in-law who had recently flown to Montana to scatter her father’s remains. She assured me that Sam and I could and should do this. We just needed a small carry-on — and some fortitude.

By my count, we have sprinkled Rob’s ashes at 20 places during this vacation season — too many to describe here. Yet, some are standouts.

In Utah, Sam and I picked a promontory over the Virgin River near Zion National Park’s Lower Emerald Pool Trail. It was the first of Rob’s places out West, and we lingered there wiping tears as we watched families dipping in the water to escape the July heat.

Rob so loved the water, and the towering orange-red mountains in the background reminded us of my tall man.

Two hours away, amid the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, an announcement by our shuttle bus driver led us to choose a place near Inspiration Point.

“That’s the Aquarian Plateau on the horizon,” he noted, “the tallest plateau in North America.”

Rob, 6 feet 5 inches, was born Feb. 9. We wiped tears again, but we laughed at how much Rob loved being an Aquarius, the coolest sign of the zodiac.

Like all sightseers, we came back with stories. A snake — possibly a rattlesnake — surprised me at our choice in California’s Jack London State Park. And while hiking along the Pacific in California’s Bodega Bay (Rob loved Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and Bodega Bay is the 1963 film’s setting), we stumbled upon a family picnicking — along with their pesky pet goats.

But my favorite anecdote comes from a stop to see friends in Berkeley, California, as we headed toward San Francisco. Mike asked me to describe our trip thus far. “Validating,” I said, because at each place, we noted something we cherished in Rob and felt some semblance of his presence.

Minutes later, Sam and I joined Mike and his wife in their car for the short drive to dinner.

A traffic light stopped us. In almost a whisper, Mike directed us to check out the license plate on the car just ahead:

R♥B SOUL

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